Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights

Photo by flickr.com/photos/vhhammer/

So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)

That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…

Strange Lights

And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.

One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit.

An 18th Century book, The Comical Pilgrim’s Pilgrimage into Ireland talks about how “Ignis Fatuus, the silly people deem to be a soul broke out of purgatory…” and the idea of strange lights being connected with the dead is by no means unique to Christian lore. Around Dartmoor and the West Country dancing lights are thought to be Corpse Candles, lights made of the spirits of the dead who have departed their bodies to dance among the living, often the souls of unbaptised children:

“All under the stars, and along the green lane,
Unslaked by the dew, and unquenched by the rain,
Of little flames blue to the churchyard steal two,
The soul of my baby now from me has now flew!”
— “A Book of Folk-Lore” by Sabine Baring-Gold (1913)

Names and styles for strange lights were scattered across Europe. Sean B Palmer’s awesome history site, inamidst.com, lists almost fifty British names alone, reflecting a huge variety of beliefs and backgrounds: Bob-A-Longs, Merry Dancers, Fetch Lights. It’s not surprising then, that people should also link them with Faeries.

Robin Goodfellow, a faerie who featured as Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was reknowned for leading wanderers astray, taking them to their deaths in bogs  like the ones surrounding London until almost mid-way through the 19th Century. Faeries were also said to lead humans astray so that they could kidnap them for various purposes from sex to midwifery. (Apparently faerie medical colleges weren’t much good, so they needed to outsource to the human race. Unfortunately faeries’ idea of outsourcing was pretty similar to how Kim Jong Il ‘outsourced’ the directing of Pulgasari.)

Of course, if you were lucky then the lights wouldn’t be actively trying to lead you astray. They might not be faerie lights at all. They might be undead faerie lights.

Wirt Sykes’ 1880 book, British Goblins talks about the myth of Sion ap Dafydd, a Welsh pensioner who got into the habit of talking to a couple of ‘children of the bottomless pit’ who lived near him. After quarrelling with them not once, but three times, Sion made the stone cold logical move of selling his soul to The Devil (although after one of those arguments Sion managed to kill a demon by telling it his shotgun was a bong, so he might not have had much respect for the intellectual standards in Satan’s army.) Unfortuntely, eventually Sion’s time ran out and a horrific demon came for him. Deals with the Devil tend to go that way.

Thankfully, Sion had just enough brains to ask the demon to dip him down towards the earth so that he could pick one last apple to eat on the way to hell. As you might imagine, once he was in grabbing distance of a branch Sion held on for dear life… and since Satan obviously hires the demons who get rejected by every other version of hell, it gave up when it couldn’t get him off the branch with mundane tugging. Not like creatures from the pit have magic powers or anything.

Sion was saved from the devil, who never followed up on his right to claim Sion’s soul, but he was judged too wicked to get into heaven and after his death he was turned into Jack O’Lantern, the wandering faerie light.

“So let me get this straight… he told YOU his shotgun was a bong, and then when YOU want to get him he just held onto a branch? And our T&Cs say that he gets to live forever? FML.” (Picture from flickr.com/photos/kintzertorium/)

So yeah… lights you see in the dark could either be faeries, undead, or undead faeries. Oh, or normal thieves leading people into quiet spots where they can be mugged more easily.                                                                                                

Check out our first article on Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark!

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Filed under English Folklore, Irish Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Strange History, Welsh Folklore, Whole Article

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